Imagine hearing that a member of your family is running around the business district, wearing dirty rags and making a public spectacle of himself. And by the way, you’re famous—talk about a PR nightmare! Now you have an idea how Queen Esther might have felt upon learning that Mordecai, the cousin who raised her, was weeping in sackcloth and ashes at the king’s gate.
To get the most out of this Bible study, read the entire book of Esther, preferably in one sitting. Before you begin, ask the Holy Spirit to guide you into the truth available in its 10 chapters. Give yourself permission to ask questions that may not have answers. Wonder aloud, imagine the scene, and take note of anything that surprises, confuses, or even offends you. Above all else, trust the Lord. He’s the best teacher.
Key Passage: Esther 4:1-17; Esther 5:1
Esther, originally named Hadassah, was a Jewish orphan raised by her father’s nephew Mordecai. Around 479 B.C., during the first Persian Empire, she became queen of King Ahasuerus (thought by many to be Xerxes 1) when her predecessor Vashti was deposed for disobeying a royal command.
Later, the king’s chief advisor Haman, a descendant of the Amalekites, continued his people’s long-standing hostility against the Jews and devised a plan to destroy them. Esther and Mordecai were instrumental in foiling the evil plot—a deliverance that is still celebrated today by the Jewish festival of Purim.
One of the key words in the book of Esther is favor. From the time she entered the king’s harem (Est. 2:9), Esther won the favor of everyone who interacted with her—including Xerxes himself (Est. 2:15-17). As a result, the king was magnanimous toward his royal court, his servants, and his subjects, with widespread celebrations and gift giving (Est. 2:18).
- Consider the impact of favor in Esther’s story and what that might say about how God views its purpose. Thinking about your own life, where do you enjoy favor with influential people? Has that benefited anyone besides you?
Continuing the Story
Though Esther “attained royalty” because of favor (Est. 4:14), that role wasn’t a particularly safe one—with her crown came crisis. As both a Jewess and Queen of Persia, Esther soon felt the tension that comes with straddling two kingdoms in conflict. And the way she became aware of her predicament was by hearing of her cousin’s conspicuous behavior and wardrobe.
Though Esther “attained royalty” because of favor, that role wasn’t a particularly safe one—with her crown came crisis.
In those days Jews used sackcloth and ashes to symbolize one thing: mourning. Esther would have known Mordecai’s appearance wasn’t simply a style choice. But instead of looking for the cause of his grief, she first addressed the symptom—by sending him fresh clothes. Only when he refused them did she inquire about what was wrong. The news was staggering: Jews throughout the kingdom were to be killed by order of King Ahasuerus, Esther’s husband. Such orders couldn’t be revoked, so it appeared the fate of God’s people had been sealed. All hope was lost.
Or was it? Mordecai begged Esther to use her influence with the king on her people’s behalf. But the idea terrified the young queen. She reminded Mordecai of the Persian law that he almost certainly already knew: Anyone who went into the king’s presence without first being summoned would be put to death unless the king extended his scepter in an act of mercy. And given Ahasueras’s record of impetuous, reckless behavior, such clemency didn’t seem likely.
God doesn’t hold our humanity—including our propensity to fear—against us.
Looking at it from Esther’s perspective, there were only two possible paths, and both of them led to death—her only choice was at whose hands. But Mordecai reframed the situation, suggesting that this apparent dead end perhaps was Esther’s destiny rather than her doom: What if this isn’t an accident? What if you have been called to this very place of tension not to survive but to surrender? Three days of fasting and praying later, we find Esther standing in the inner court ready to lose her life so that she might keep it.
- In your life, can you think of any situations where you feel the tension between God’s rule and the world’s? What has been your strategy for dealing with that friction?
- Esther’s initial reaction was inaction (see Est. 4:11). Do you identify with her fearful rationalizing? If you do (and who wouldn’t?), take heart: God doesn’t hold our humanity—including our propensity to fear—against us. Realizing this, how might you reframe your situation?
- Reread Mordecai’s response (Est. 4:14), noticing how he encouraged Esther to rethink her decision. What do you suppose she found to be the most motivating part of his argument? Have you ever felt God had positioned you “for such a time as this”?
REMEMBER Surrender risks.
Over the next several weeks, use this section to review the study and consider how its message applies to your life.
Have you ever faced a situation where the friction between the culture and God’s kingdom was rubbing you raw? Perhaps that describes something you’re going through right now, such as conflict within your family or unrest in your city. Maybe every option feels like a dead end, and you’re starting to despair. But the story wasn’t over for Esther, and it’s not over for you either. God has a vision for this crisis and the part you play in it. Look at Esther 4:16, specifically where it says, “I will go in to the king, which is not according to the law; and if I perish, I perish.” The beginning of Esther’s influence was her surrender to the worst-case scenario: death.
As Mordecai did with Esther, God comes alongside us in our fear, confronting our self-preservation instinct where it conflicts with His will, and inviting us to yield control of our life as we embrace our place in His larger story.
- In your life, what worst-case scenario do you need to make peace with in order to submit to God’s will? In Esther 5:1, we find the Jewish queen standing in the inner court of the palace, breaking one kingdom’s law to advance the rule of another. Think about your situation—do you foresee any moment where honoring God will require going against the “law of the land,” whether that means cultural norms, social conventions, or even religious traditions? In what ways do Esther’s courage and God’s deliverance change your perspective or plans?
- Every situation is unique, so relying on the Holy Spirit for guidance is key. As you think through what surrender could look like in your life, consider the risks that might be required and the innate aversion you may have to taking them. Obeying God can be a dangerous proposition, but it’s always worth it.
Illustration by Adam Cruft